A new public opinion poll being released today found that more than 60 percent of voters think that televising U.S. Supreme Court proceedings would be "good for democracy."
Only 26 percent said televising oral arguments would undermine the Court's "dignity or authority," according to the PublicMind poll.
Sentiment in favor of cameras in the high court runs the highest among liberals (71 percent) and voters between ages 18 and 29 (69 percent), according to the survey. Two-thirds of Democrats believe that televising the Court is good for democracy, while 53 percent of Republicans said the same thing.
The poll also indicates that more than half of voters believe that Supreme Court justices, who currently enjoy life tenure, should be limited to 18 years on the bench.
PublicMind, a research project of Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, conducted the telephone poll of 1,002 registered voters in late January and early February.
"It is striking that majorities of Republicans, as well as Democrats, young and older voters, and political independents all believe that televising the Supreme Court would support self-government," said political scientist Bruce Peabody, chairman of Fairleigh Dickinson's department of social sciences and history, who has written extensively about the issue of cameras in the Court. "That seems like a fairly sensible, modest conclusion given that today's proposals to televise the Court would only shine a fixed spotlight on proceedings the Court already makes accessible in person."
In recent polling, C-SPAN, the cable channel that plans to air Supreme Court arguments when and if the high court gives the green light, has found similar support for the idea.
"At a time when it seems difficult to get a majority of Americans to agree about almost anything, it is gratifying to see the broad support for using television to bring the Supreme Court closer to the people," said Bruce Collins, C-SPAN vice president and general counsel, in reaction to the new poll. "We should not have to wait any longer."
The Supreme Court has clung to its long-standing opposition to cameras despite a steady but generally low-intensity campaign to change its mind. Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., has introduced legislation requiring camera access in most cases, but justices have recoiled at the notion, with Justice Anthony Kennedy criticizing such legislation as an offense to the "etiquette" between branches.
Justices' objections to cameras range from the personal (they enjoy their anonymity) to the philosophical (resisting the spotlight sends the message that the Court is above the rough and tumble of politics and the media). In recent years, security has also been raised as a factor, with justices fearing that greater public exposure will trigger more threats against them.
The Court's newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor, had experience with cameras in the courtroom at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. During her confirmation hearings last summer, she said she would share her positive reaction to the experience with her new colleagues.
The Fairleigh Dickinson poll found some disagreement over the likely impact of televising arguments on the Court's decision-making. While 45 percent of those polled said it would be good because the justices would consider public opinion more, 31 percent said it would be bad for the same reason -- the Court would consider public opinion too much.
Even though most respondents favored televising the high court, that doesn't mean it would be a ratings hit. Only 17 percent said they would watch the hearings regularly, and 33 percent said they would watch sometimes.
On the subject of life tenure for justices, 56 percent approved of an 18-year maximum term while 35 percent disapproved. When asked how old is too old to be a justice, 48 percent said there should be no fixed age cutoff, as long as the justice is healthy.